Pope Francis has become the first pontiff to visit the Arabian Peninsula, just hours after issuing his strongest condemnation yet of the war in Yemen, where his host, the United Arab Emirates, has a leading military role.
Shortly before departing, he said he was following the humanitarian crisis in Yemen with great concern, using his regular Sunday address in Vatican City to urge all sides to implement a fragile peace deal and deliver aid.
“The cry of these children and their parents rise up to God,” he told followers in St Peter’s Square.
“Let us pray strongly because they are children who are hungry, who are thirsty, they don’t have medicine and they are in danger of death,” he said.
The UAE supports Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, which has caused the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
During his two-day visit, the Pope will aim to promote interfaith dialogue and visit Catholic peripheries, but Vatican officials said it was not clear whether he would address the sensitive subject of Yemen in public or private during his visit.
Pope Francis was greeted by Abu Dhabi’s powerful crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan.
He will meet Muslim leaders and on Tuesday will celebrate an outdoor mass for up to 135,000 people in the city’s main sports arena – in what some have called the largest show of public Christian worship on the peninsula.
He has said the trip is an opportunity to write “a new page in the history of relations between religions”.
The UAE also faces criticism from human-rights groups for jailing activists, including Ahmed Mansoor, an Emirati who is serving a 10-year sentence for criticising the government on social media.
“We are calling on Pope Francis to raise the issue of their incarceration with his hosts, and urge their immediate and unconditional release,” Amnesty International said in a statement.
The Catholic Church believes there are a million Catholics in the UAE. Most are Filipino and Indian, many of whom have left behind families for work and can face precarious labour conditions, which human-rights groups regularly denounce.
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